Piano Lessons For Kids

Excerpt from Chopin's Etude Op.10 No.3

We don't start here, but many high schoolers get to Chopin.

What ages do you teach? 

The short answer is anyone older than 5. The long answer is that I tell parents to wait until their child settles into school, has some ability to sit still and take directions and has shown some interest in playing the piano. Being able to read is not a prerequisite for piano lessons, but it is helpful. Kids up until about the second grade will need more parental help at home. Parents might need to attend lessons to figure out how to do things at home with their child.

But some kids work harder and behave better alone with the teacher  than with a parent present (definitely the case with MY kids).

Older kids, say 8 years and up, are better able to take charge of their own learning. Since they can do more right off the bat, they have more fun and are more motivated to continue.

How long are lessons?

Standard beginner lessons are 30 minutes, once a week. After achieving level 2 or so, lessons need to be 45 minutes or an hour weekly

Do you teach theory?
It is impossible NOT to teach theory, especially in the beginning. However, I don’t teach it as a separate subject, separate book, separate class or anything like that. I mix it into the basic lesson and often students and parents haven’t any idea that “music theory” is what is going on.

How do you teach technique?    

Piano technique is an arcane subject beloved of piano geeks everywhere. We  get all worked up about it and will argue fine points well into the night.

For those of you who have missed out on piano geek-dom, technique is what we call the physical aspect of playing the piano. It is traditionally taught through separate exercises and scales and things.

Hanon exercises: a good way to get bored and tightened up at the same time

But, according to my training and experience, I don’t mess with technique unless technique messes with me. I rarely use the word, especially with kids. I don’t assign exercises in a blanket way, like “You’re a beginner, here is your exercise book, do 20 pages of section 1 and next week we will do 20 more and by November we will move on to Volume 2 with 135 more pages to do…”

My teacher taught me to always approach the physical aspect of piano playing through the music itself. I use exercises a lot, but  disguised as music. They are exercises by stealth. When I DO use exercises from a book that says “Technique” or “Exercises” or something equally thrilling, I use them like a doctor uses antibiotics: specifically assigned to deal with a specific problem and under close supervision.

I wouldn’t go to a doctor who gave every patient penicillin and I don’t give all my students the same exercises.

Do you have recitals? 
I have really mixed feelings about recitals. On the positive side, a clear goal to work for is often a good motivator. Piano playing IS a performance art, and readying a piece for performance is a valuable experience. Parents and other relatives enjoy seeing their kids play. Listening to and watching my students all at once is valuable for me, too, as I can get an overview of what I’ve done, good or bad.
The down side of recitals is the same as the up side: performance. I don’t want to imply that the point of music study is performance. Not everyone wants to do it. Not everyone is able to perform comfortably. Preparing for performance takes valuable lesson time that, for some students, might be better spent on other aspects of music.

And I can’t tell you how many adults I have met who have said, “I liked my piano lessons but I hated the recitals so I quit”.

My current solution to this problem is to have highly informal, not-required, anything-related-to-your-music-study get-togethers for kids, parents, cookies, songs, games, whatever. These are at the end of each term, unless cancelled due to lack of interest (families DO get busy with other things). They are here, in the studio. No scary change of venue.

Do you do competitions, Syllabus, Festival, etc.?

A monument to Bela Bartok, teacher, composer, musicologist, whose comment on piano competitions was: "I'm teaching musicians, not race horses!"

No. I might enter a few students in The Federation of Music Clubs Festival this year. I haven’t done so in many years.

For the most part, I find these exercises to require too much “teaching to the test”. They don’t allow enough flexibility to meet the real needs of my students. Since kids get plenty of that kind of education at school, I try to offer a different path.

What method do you use?

“Method” has 2 meanings for piano teachers. The broad meaning is “how do you do what you do”. The answer to that is pretty simple: I use all means at my disposal, plus 30 years’ experience, about 20 years’ direct training and lots of planning and note-taking to get each student playing as well as I can, as quickly as I can and as enjoyably as I can. And I try not to mess it up.

“Method” also refers to the commercial products piano teachers buy and use with their beginning students. There are oodles of these, each with a particular slant and world view. These are the lesson books, technique books, theory books, etc. that go by levels through the early years of piano playing. They are designed by the publishers to sell and also to work. Sometimes they do both.
I have used most of these over the years. Some I like better than others. Some I love but have trouble teaching (those darn students! They just don’t think like me!). Some I really don’t like but they work with some students so I happily use them.

Lately, I have been pretty dependent on Piano Adventures, authored by Nancy and Randall Faber. The music is good, it suits kids, it is thorough and incremental and I have lots of experience with  these volumes. I know when to expect trouble and what to do about it.

What kind of music do you teach? 

Guido d'Arezzo started the whole music notation thing by pointing to his hand for each note

I’m not getting this question as often as I used to. Back in the day,  there was a strict separation between “classical” teachers and everyone else. There was plenty  of antagonism on all sides.  The classical teachers thought they had the best training, music, attitude, whatever.  The other teachers thought the classical people were elitists who were squelching creativity and depriving their students of skills in improvising or comping or playing with a band or whatever.
I think YouTube and iPods  have made the gamut of music available to everyone and people tend to just like “music” and not specialize so much anymore. That is helpful to me, because I like to use music that means something to my students, along with introducing them to music they don’t already know. They will gain something from both the known and the unknown.
I’m  a classical pianist. That means that the music I study for myself and that I  would perform if I ever got around to it is solidly in the European art music realm: Chopin, Ravel, Rachmaninoff, etc. I play at  a high level (the way to figure this kind of thing out is to ask a pianist how many of the Chopin Etudes they play. If they gulp and say, “none” they aren’t quite there yet. I’ve played most of them, up to tempo, with a high degree of polish. I skipped a couple I dislike).
Being able to play and enjoy the Chopin Etudes has great snob appeal. With that  and about $4.00 you can get a pretty good cup of coffee. You can bring conversations to a dead halt by bragging about it. You can talk to about 10 other people in the Portland area, if you could stand each other.
The benefit of having a classically trained teacher is this: I know what good playing looks, feels and sounds like and how to get there from here. So I don’t do  things that will mess my students up later on, even though they are standard piano teacher practice. See “exercises” and “theory” above.
But I will teach any kind of music to that works. This includes jazz, movie music, video game music, oldie moldies and good old Bach, Beethoven and Brahms.
Straight but not narrow about sums it up.
How do you keep from going nuts teaching the same old skills of note-reading, rhythmic playing, left hand, right hand, ABCD, day after day, year after year? And listening to all that dreadful playing?
OK, I’ve never really been asked this question by a parent. But sometimes I can see it in their eyes.
The truth is, if I find things are dragging, I change what I’m doing. If I’m getting bored or frustrated, chances are the kids are, too. So I use lots of games and activities and weird props like stuffed chickens and marimbas and jumping up and down and absolutely anything that will keep us all awake and make things stick.
Those busy scientists have discovered that we learn best and remember longest when we are having fun. So that’s what I do. Teaching all those wonderful skills isn’t boring or frustrating if the teaching sticks and the student is happy and learning. It is only when you are repeating over and over, stuck in the mud with no chance of ever getting out, that piano lessons get tedious. When kids are soaking it up it is a kick in the pants every lesson.
And the playing isn’t dreadful. It is going somewhere wonderful and I get to help!
Without Syllabus exams and no grades, how does a parent know what is happening in piano lessons? 
I will happily send you email updates on your child’s lessons. I try to do this for everyone at least once a term. This works better than the 15 second “How’s he doing?” between lessons. There is only one decent answer in this instance, which is “Fine”. With email I can check my notes and go into detail on what I see,  where things seem to be going, where they have been and answer all your questions.
I am a music education geek, though, and I will go on and on and on about what I do and what your child is doing.  So you might have to shut me up.

§ 2 Responses to Piano Lessons For Kids

  • Yes! A little stretching sounds fun, or a sing-a-long or participatory music in some other way. Anything to loosen it up.

  • Susan Hist says:

    I’m a Piano/Vocal teacher in Toronto, just came across your site.
    I agree with a lot of your views and ideas. I had a concert yesterday
    and I too find myself doing what I can to make these concerts (not recitals) fun and interesting. I’m still looking for more ways to make
    them more fun and less intimidating for all involved. I teach yoga,
    so I usually start with some music and gentle stretcing for everyone
    to ‘loosen up’ a little.

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